Tag Archive for Cobb Rebecca

Mothers in Modern Children’s Books

In a great deal of children’s fiction, mothers are either dead, disappeared or distant. As a mother myself, that’s always a little frustrating – although I realise that the reason my children haven’t discovered a Magic Faraway Tree in the garden, escaped to another world through the wardrobe, or fallen down a rabbit hole is because I’m always there, beating on the door, interrupting every scene, making a nuisance of myself with my rules and fussiness.

The following children’s books all feature mothers very kindly – in one even pointing to the fact that they are superheroes – so for mother’s day, I’m celebrating the mothers who feature, rather than fade into the background.

the paper dolls

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
One of the slightly lesser known Julia Donaldson stories, this is a nostalgic ride through childhood, describing the craft activity of a small girl, and her memories of it as she grows. The mother, first labelled as ‘nice’ in the text, is portrayed with more empathy in the pictures – the reader sees her on her knees beside her daughter with a cup of tea in hand. She looks on fondly at her daughter colouring in the paper dolls. She has clearly helped to make them.

The mother disappears as the girl takes her dolls away to play, but returns to join in the make-believe at the breakfast table – donning a crocodile puppet. Unfortunately she can’t rescue her daughter’s paper dolls when a nasty boy comes to snip them to pieces. The little girl then grows into a mum herself:

“And the girl grew…into a mother”, my favourite illustrations portraying the child growing from holding a book to holding a baby – and then

“who helped her own little girl make some paper dolls”, this time at the table, but mimicking the former picture, with similar props.

The text doesn’t rhyme, as in many favourite Donaldson titles, but there is a superb sing-song rhythm to the story, which a reader can’t help but pronounce as its read aloud.

Of course I’ve picked it for the depiction of a mother who plays with her child, but actually the story is about loss – the fluidity of time, the memories of things now long gone, including people, and the inherited culture that continues from one generation to the next. Because after all, as mothers, we’re teaching children about our heritage, and giving them tools to manage and enjoy their future. Purchase it here.

polly and puffin

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty
Just published, this is a book that captures the relationship between mother and child in a few simple words, and with just a few pages evokes real emotion in the reader.

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day is the second in the series. Polly is waiting for her father to come home in his boat, but the waiting is difficult, and even harder when it’s raining outside and a storm makes her feel anxious. With beautiful two-colour illustrations throughout, shades of orange and grey creating the perfect mix between a child’s outlook and the approach of a grey storm.

Of course, her puffin, Neil, features heavily in this series of books about the friendship between the girl and the rescued puffin – and the illustrations of Neil are also accentuated by the chosen colour palette (black and white and an orange beak). Polly is distressed when he flies off into the storm and she has to wait for him to return as well as her father.

There are some beautiful touches of interplay between mother and daughter. Polly wakes up early, the inference is that it is too early, and:

“Mummy was trying to do Busy Stuff.”

She asks Polly for five minutes – and the author turns to talk to the reader:

“Can you just give me five minutes?” said Mummy. (Does your mummy ever say that?)”

There are some real moments of emotional intelligence all the way through the book, from the illustrations of Mummy at the computer with Polly hanging round her neck, to Mummy’s comforting of Polly during the storm:
“I would come and find you. That’s what mummies do. Shelter you from storms.”

Mummy also shows Polly that she is not alone in her waiting – with a sympathetic and understanding explanation of all the other people who are waiting in the café. There is a beautifully happy uplifting ending of course – a hug of a story. At the end there is information on lighthouses, recipes and activities. Perfect for newly independent readers, and mums who want their heartstrings twanged. You can buy it here.

superhero street

Superhero Street by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
For my eagle-eyed readers, you’ll see that this is the second in Phil’s series of Storey Street books, and the first, Demolition Dad, I featured last Father’s Day, so it’s rather fitting that this second slots into my Mother’s Day post.

Mouse lives on Storey Street with his twin and triplet brothers. He is obsessed with superheroes, and knows he could be one himself, as heroes tend to come from the ordinary – just look at Clark Kent. So far though, he hasn’t been successful.

When he and his mother accidentally foil a bank robbery, his dreams of being a superhero come true. When other ‘superheroes’ arrive at his house, he and they band together to stop a dastardly villain returning to claim her missing diamond.

The story is slightly more insular than Demolition Dad – it is almost entirely focussed on Mouse’s family, with friends on the street as periphery characters only, but this is mainly because Mouse’s own family is a bit of a mess, and rather sprawling. Mouse feels overlooked at home, with five smaller brothers to look after, his parents are exhausted. Then when his Dad walks out, Mouse’s despair sinks to new levels. If children are unhappy at home, it’s hard to shift the focus away.

Because this is for younger readers than Phil Earle’s YA territory, he very cleverly weaves the silliness of the story, complete with madcap and lunatic characters such as superhero Dandruff Dan, into the mix, so that bodily function jokes mask the seriousness of a father leaving home and the burden left behind on the mother.

The underlying message is that anyone can be a superhero if they act in the correct way – Mouse’s mother is certainly a superhero in my eyes, and in illlustrator Sara Ogilvie’s eyes: her portrayal of Mum in the kitchen supervising her six boys. Mouse’s mother is also the school lollipop lady – another community superhero.

Phil’s penchant for authorial references and asides to the reader always makes me giggle, and emphasise that he’s telling a story:

“People throw parties for lots of different reasons. Birthdays, weddings, chickenpox…don’t laugh, it’s true, go and ask your mum. Well, go on! OK, are you back? Comfy? Good…”

So combined with the silliness of the plot, the hilarious illustrations, and the comedic text, this makes for a riotous book despite the underlying seriousness.

A superhero writer – showing the goodness of mothers. For readers aged 7+ years. You can buy it here.

sam and sam

The Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day

What’s better than one mum? Two mums! As Susie Day puts it in The Secrets of Sam and Sam:
“One mum was good. Two mums was best.”

This novel is a spin-off title from Susie Day’s much loved series about Pea (including Pea’s Book of Best Friends). Secondary characters in Pea’s books, the twins Sam and Sammie move centre stage with their own story here, in a loveable tale about being twins, having a loving family, school trips, conquering fears, making friends and builders!

Told in a series of vignettes about Sam’s secrets, and then also third person narrative about both twins, as well as letters, annotations on the book Mum K (child psychologist) is writing, and various other documents and text messages, this is a hilarious look about finding out who you are, what you can achieve, and how to make friends.

Sam is scared of heights and wants to avoid the school trip, which sounds dangerous and risky. Sammie is delighted about the school trip, but rather worried that her best friend has a new best friend. And she needs to prove to everyone that she’s definitely the Best Twin. Meanwhile Sam and Sammie’s two mums have secrets of their own.

This is a fun story that children will whizz through, sympathising at times with both twins, and seeing the delightful irony and wit that shines through Susie Day’s writing.

The author is brilliant at conveying the messiness, stresses, and love of the family unit in all its different guises and ways – even with the peripheral characters in this novel, and that’s what makes the read heart-warming, sincere, and sharp too. She imbues her characters with a warmth and generosity – even when they’re making mistakes (the adults too), so that the reader both empathises with them, and feels a familiarity with the book too. Her settings are incredibly visual – the street is particularly well-described, so that the reader is completely immersed.

Dotted throughout with doodly illustrations by Aaron Blecha, the book feels both meaty in content and yet satisfyingly easy to fly through – highly recommended for children aged 8+ years. And it features a family with two mothers. Hard to beat on Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.

Ten Picture Books Published in 2014

I wasn’t writing my blog in 2014 (well not until the very end), so in order to catch up with the new brilliance emerging in picture books, here are some of my favourites from last year. The good news is that now it’s 2015 they should all be appearing in paperback sometime soon if not already. Note that many of these are not just for 4-6 years, many 8 year olds have enjoyed these equally, if not more, and teachers will love the rhyming language, clever plot devices and nuances of some of them. Others can be studied for style alone.

Oi Frog

Oi Frog by Kes Gray and Jim Field
Top billing for this book in which a disdainful cat explains to a frog where he ought to sit. This book is totally hilarious – worth reading over and over again, particularly if you can get the tone of voice right for the cat. It’s a rhyming book, inspiring children to shout out the punchlines before you get to them. The beauty of the book is the extreme simplicity of the concept –which animal sits on which object? The cartoon-like illustrations of the animals will have everyone in fits of laughter from the beginning endpapers of the frog to the lambs sitting on jams, the bees sitting on keys, the pumas sitting on ….. – no, I shan’t give it away. Buy the book!

you are not small

You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant
This is a picture book where the pictures are everything (and no wonder as the illustrator is none other than the New Yorker illustrator Christopher Weyant). You Are (Not) Small attempts to explain relativity to children. Not a detailed theory of Einstein, but simply that everything is relative depending on your standpoint. Two hairy nondescript creatures argue over whether one is small or one is big until a bigger creature comes along, and some much smaller ones too – and suddenly big is not big but smaller, and small is not small but bigger. Confused? Without pictures it’s easy to be, but with pictures it’s not only clear but also hilarious. Two astute punchlines at the end make this a giggle for the children, as well as an interesting lesson.

little elliot

Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato
Another picture book on the topic of size, and with amazing illustrations – but this is quite different from You Are (Not) Small. Little Elliot is an overwhelmingly cute elephant, but small of size. He lives in a big city – Mike Curato has drawn almost Edward Hopper-like New York cityscapes – old fashioned with towering city blocks and a bustling subway packed with people in hats. Elliot can’t manage in the big city, even struggling to reach the counter to buy a prized cupcake in a pink cake box. Then he bumps into someone smaller than him (a mouse), and by doing this mouse a good deed, feels as if he is the tallest elephant in the world. The landscape changes abruptly to reflect his mood. This is a highly stylized depiction of size, with a huge emotional impact, especially when we discover that Elliot has not only gained confidence, but gained a friend.

on sudden hill

On Sudden Hill by Linda Sarah, illustrated by Benji Davies
Far, far from the city, this picture book also packs a punch emotionally, but the setting couldn’t be more different. On Sudden Hill is set in a deliberately unrecognisable everyman’s countryside, where rabbits and chickens frolic in the long grass. Birt and Etho are two boys who climb up Sudden Hill to play their imaginary games with each other. Then one day a third boy arrives, but his arrival has difficult consequences for Birt, who seems to have lost his “two-by-two rhythm”. He shows his frustration in anger, and then withdraws, and it takes a while before the boys can find their new “three-by-three rhythm.” The illustrations are almost whimsical in the way they hark to a childhood time of freedom, of swinging in trees, larking with discarded materials, and seemingly having all day to play under the sunshine. As in Little Elliot, the drawings are of an American landscape and the story delivers a fine message.

sam and dave

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
A definite two-by-two rhythm here as Sam and Dave are two small boys working towards a goal together. There’s a camaraderie between the two that one imagines is shared between author and illustrator, as the text and images play off each other to make the jokes. The images are in muted colours in the same way as the boys’ conversation is sparse and unembellished. As On Sudden Hill it relates to a childhood where all day could be spend digging a hole just for the sake of doing it. The reader is let in on certain jokes from the illustrator while the boys dig deeper and deeper. The whole text, images and pages from the very beginning to the very end need exploring for the reader to fully understand the whole context, the in-jokes and where Sam and Dave get to with their hole. Nothing to be given away here – you’ll have to buy it.

the something

The Something by Rebecca Cobb
Another hole, but this one is a complete mystery. Rebecca Cobb’s protagonist (described as a boy on the publisher’s website although to me the cleverness is that the child could be a boy or a girl) loses his ball down a hole in the garden, and spends the rest of the book imagining (with the help of friends and family) what could be down the hole. The book comes alive with the small deft touches at which Rebecca Cobb is so brilliant, the cowardice of the father figure, the imaginary mouse house beyond the hole, the diverse group of friends, the animals whose actions mimic those of the grandparents. This is a surprising and wonderful picture book, which, like On Sudden Hill, captures the power of imagination, and the beautiful landscape of the outside.

shh we have a plan

Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton
The power of colour screams from this blue book. This deserves a slow read – the text is almost a by-product, as all the action, characterisation and plot occurs through pictures alone. It’s a clever device, and if savoured, will result in your children clutching themselves in laughter. It did mine. Four hunters attempt to capture a bird, and fail every time. It’s a classic convention, yet executed in a stunning format. Each page is tones of blue – both hunters and landscape – the only extra colour being the hunted bird. Chris Haughton has a very distinctive style and he uses it to aplomb here.

teacher monster

My Teacher is a Monster (No I am Not) by Peter Brown
Again, an interesting use of colour for Peter Brown’s book, which as in Shh! We Have a Plan shows plot development through picture rather than text. The colours throughout are shades of brown and green – slowly turning to some turquoise and blue, and like Chris Haughton, Peter Brown’s style is truly distinctive. Initially Ms Kirby, the teacher, is portrayed as quite a monster. She roars in class, and stomps about with threatening behaviour. But then Bobby, from class, bumps into his teacher in the park at the weekend, and gradually they get to know each other. Bobby rescues Ms Kirby’s hat when it’s whipped away in the wind – and Ms Kirby suggests they fly paper aeroplanes – the same deed for which she had scolded her class earlier in the week. Then before his and our eyes, gradually her monster features are softened, and then disappear altogether through Peter Brown’s clever drawings, until in the end we see that she’s an ordinary lady. Peter Brown is showing us how we fear the unfamiliar, but if we overcome the otherness, then no fear remains.

ralfy rabbit

Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar by Emily MacKenzie
Reminiscent of many other books that demonstrate a character’s intense love for books (see Bears Don’t Read by Emma Chichester Clark, and The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty), Ralfy Rabbit is another addition to the book lover’s library. However, Ralfy Rabbit stands apart for the massive attention to detail in the pictures and text. His lists of books will have adults chortling (The Rabbit with the Dandelion Tattoo), just as much as the children will be oohing after the cute rabbit pictures. Ralfy Rabbit loves books so much that he starts stealing them. Arthur is a little boy who discovers who is stealing all the books, but no one will believe him. His teacher’s attitude is astute and funny: “I want you to go away and have a long, hard think about what you are saying”, as is the bunny line-up when Ralfy Rabbit is eventually caught. The punchline – that a place exists from which you can borrow books – the library – is truly apt for our times. Let’s hope Ralfy Rabbit and public libraries have the longevity they deserve.

sloth slept

Sloth Slept On by Frann Preston-Gannon
Another picture book that explores the value of books is Sloth Slept On. When two children discover a sloth in their garden, they attempt to find out where it comes from – of course it doesn’t tell them – it’s always asleep. After coming up with a myriad of possibilities using their wild imaginations, they discover the answer by looking in a book and on a globe. Then the children need to work out how to get the sloth home – with interesting consequences, and a particularly funny punchline, which is alluded to throughout if you pay attention. The illustrations are adorable – from the sloth’s upturned mouth while it sleeps to the two playful and curious children. A winner for younger children.

 

 

The More It Snows…

Snow Eastman
This December it’s not quite cold enough for snow, and set to get warmer by the day in London this week. However, for me, the magic of Christmas is still tied to a snowy landscape. There is something special about snow. No other weather creates such a magical environment for a young child. In recent years in London we’ve had on average one ‘snow day’ a year, in which the schools close and it’s free play outside all day. One book from my childhood readily sums up the delight of this day, Snow by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman. Published in the US as part of the Dr Seuss beginners’ series to learn to read, the basic text and smile-inducing illustrations capture the excitement in a nutshell.

Snow inside Eastman
Tobogganing, skiing, snow angels, snow ball fights, snowman building, igloo building, and of course the ultimate melting are all covered. The verses are simple yet so effective:
“Snow is good
For making tracks…
And making pictures
With your backs.”

Snow is my favourite
More recent offerings also manage to convey the happiness of a snow day, and the inevitable melting. Snow is My Favourite and My Best by Lauren Child in the Charlie and Lola book series manages to express the impatience of a child in wanting to go and play immediately before it all goes away. The tradition of my children having hot chocolate after coming in from a snow day was heavily influenced by this book! There are some important lessons here though, encouraging children to think about how to make something special. Is snow so special because it doesn’t happen every day? Both of these manage to convey the fleetingness of snow.

snow by sam usher

My new favourite is Snow by Sam Usher. From the front cover, it’s already apparent that Sam can conjure an atmosphere with a few simple pen lines. In no other picture book is the tempting flat whiteness of unspoilt snow so cleverly drawn. That impatience to go out, seen earlier in Charlie and Lola, is beautifully manifested in the slapdash hurry to get dressed, brush teeth and tie shoes…all commonly hurried activities in the impatient young. Then a breathtaking spread of pure white in front of the reader, as the snow is in front of the child. However, the book doesn’t let us leap into the snow, because, like the boy in the story we have to wait for his grandpa to be ready and take him – and then when they finally go, after the agony of watching everyone and everything else trample the fresh snow – there’s a great surprise in store. Set to be a children’s classic – I can’t wait for Sam’s next book.

Snow Bears1snow bears inside

From new to old – Snow Bears by Martin Waddell is a simple tale of a mother bear who pretends not to know where her baby bears are because they are all covered in snow and so look different. They play games in the snow, until the little one says its cold and they all go home. For me it’s the page where they return home to eat their toast that really makes me want to hug this book! Sarah Fox Davies’ illustration of the bears illuminated in the warm glow spilling out from the wooden hut sums up that wonderful feeling you only get by going into the warmth after getting cold and wet and breathless in snowy activities. The new pop up version was published in September this year.

Snow Day

Snow Day by Richard Curtis is another addition to the snow canon of picture books. I was very excited about this as it is illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, one of my favourite stars in the world of children’s illustration. The pictures certainly didn’t let me down, especially the army of snowmen, and the empty classroom. The premise is that there is a ‘snow day’ but the worst schoolboy and the strictest teacher don’t get the message (despite the emails and phone calls) and turn up to school.  What could be a miserable day turns into a day of lessons in the snow, and by the end they seem to be good friends. This is definitely a picture book for slightly older children, the length of the book and references to structured lessons ensure this.

Snow Walter de la Mare

My last new book for this Christmas with snowy landscapes is Snow by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Carolina Rabei. This is a beautiful picture book – the illustrations create a nostalgia for Christmases in peaceful sleepy snowy villages, with happy excited children and a natural landscape of trees and robin red-breasts with no cars or modern city references to spoil the footprints in the snow.
inside snow walter de la mare
The colour adds to the picture perfectness of the book – muted browns and beiges, with splashes of true red for hats and curtains and presents, which bring to life the characters within. The picture of Father Christmas on his sleigh speeding through the swirling snow against a black backdrop sky is truly stunning. However, I can’t help but think that the wonder of the illustrations detracts from the beauty of the poetic words themselves – reading it in isolation conjures more of the magic than read piecemeal sentence by sentence across a book, but if it brings the magic of a great poet into the lives of children I can’t quibble.

Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon1

One final mention for a book that is not strictly about snow, but contains a story in a snowy landscape. If you want a bit of glitter on your snow, this is the one for you. (tip: read under electric light). Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon by Gillian Lobel, illustrated by Tim Warnes is a common enough tale of friendship – Little Honey Bear sets out to reach the moon with two of his friends, gets lost in the dark, and is finally found by Mummy Bear. However, I love this book for the liberal use of glitter to highlight the illustrations on each page – it brings the magic home for Christmas.

Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon